State bars own­ers of fu­neral home

Case of corpse ne­glect set­tled; Re­dress is $3,341 for five fam­i­lies

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - HUNTER FIELD

The own­ers of a de­funct Jack­sonville fu­neral home where in­spec­tors found im­prop­erly stored, de­com­pos­ing corpses are barred from op­er­at­ing an­other fu­neral busi­ness in Arkansas and must pay resti­tu­tion to af­fected fam­i­lies as part of a set­tle­ment agree­ment with the state at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice.

At­tor­ney Gen­eral Les­lie Rut­ledge sued Arkansas Fu­neral Care, for­merly at 2620 West Main St. in Jack­sonville, af­ter the fu­neral home shut down in Jan­uary 2015 when an in­spec­tor un­cov­ered de­plorable con­di­tions there.

A stor­age cooler was stuffed beyond ca­pac­ity with bod­ies wait­ing to be cre­mated or em­balmed; seven corpses that weren’t em­balmed were out­side the cooler, some of which showed “ob­vi­ous de­com­po­si­tion,” ac­cord­ing to a re­port from the state’s Board of Em­balmers and Fu­neral Di­rec­tors.

The Pu­laski County coro­ner and the state Crime Lab­o­ra­tory even­tu­ally re­moved 31 bod­ies and 22 sets of cre­mated re­mains from the fu­neral home.

The fu­neral home must pay $3,341.36 in resti­tu­tion to five fam­i­lies as part of the set­tle­ment. The state also im­posed $10,000 in civil penal­ties but said in the agree­ment that it “rec­og­nizes that as a prac­ti­cal mat­ter, [ the penalty] is likely an un­col­lectable debt.” The own­ers have claimed to be fi­nan­cially ru­ined since the fu­neral home went un­der.

The set­tle­ment, which Rut­ledge’s of­fice an­nounced Tues­day, marks the end of the state’s in­volve­ment in the 2½-year saga. The state also charged the fu­neral home’s own­ers, Leroy Wood, 88, of Jack­sonville and his son Rod­ney Wood, 63, of He­ber Springs, and one fu­neral di­rec­tor, Ed­ward Snow, 65, of Cabot, with mul­ti­ple counts of corpse abuse.

Charges were dropped later against the Woods in ex­change for a guilty plea on be­half of the busi­ness and a $50,000 fine.

A jury ac­quit­ted Snow in June 2016. He re­mains li­censed as a fu­neral di­rec­tor and em­balmer, ac­cord­ing to the state fu­neral board.

“Our loved ones de­serve to be treated with the ut­most dig­nity and re­spect,” Rut­ledge said in a re­leased state­ment. “Re­gret­tably, Arkansas Fu­neral Care ig­nored this re­spon­si­bil­ity and egre­giously vi­o­lated the trust of Arkansans.”

Fam­ily mem­bers com­plained to Rut­ledge that Arkansas Fu­neral Care failed to pro­vide ba­sic paid ser­vices like cre­ma­tion and open-cas­ket view­ing. They also re­ported “nau­se­at­ing odor” and un­timely re­ceipt of death cer­tifi­cates, court doc­u­ments show.

The home billed it­self as a bud­get fu­neral home, pro­vid­ing a cheaper, sim­pler al­ter­na­tive to “tra­di­tional” fu­neral homes.

In the set­tle­ment agree­ment, the Woods’ de­nied any wrong­do­ing noted in Rut­ledge’s com­plaint while acknowledging the state would likely suc­ceed at trial.

The Woods’ at­tor­ney as­serts in the set­tle­ment that Leroy Wood was ab­sent be­cause of ill­ness around the time a state in­spec­tor ar­rived. The fu­neral home ex­pe­ri­enced a “record level of vol­ume” that week, the set­tle­ment reads, and Leroy Wood wasn’t aware that the work­ers had be­come over­whelmed.

Once he rec­og­nized the prob­lem, he added a sec­ond shift for cre­ma­tions and called around to nearby fu­neral homes to ask for as­sis­tance, the state­ment said. In an at­tempt to sal­vage the un­re­frig­er­ated bod­ies, Wood cut off the heat in the stor­age and work area and ven­ti­lated the out­side air to try to lower the in­side tem­per­a­ture, the state­ment said.

“In hind­sight, Mr. Wood now sees that they failed to take ad­di­tional steps that would have been help­ful,” the set­tle­ment said.

Lit­tle Rock at­tor­ney John Moore, who rep­re­sented the Woods in the set­tle­ment, re­ferred ques­tions Tues­day to their per­sonal at­tor­ney, Brian Woodruff of Jack­sonville. Woodruff did not re­turn a phone call re­quest­ing com­ment.

In the past, the Woods have ex­pressed re­gret and sym­pa­thy for the fam­i­lies af­fected by the com­pany’s “neg­li­gence.”

A Nat­u­ral State Fu­neral Ser­vice pur­chased the prop­erty in 2015 from Arkansas Fu­neral Care LLC for $186,340, ac­cord­ing to real es­tate records. The new fu­neral home is in good stand­ing with the fu­neral board, sec­re­tary/ trea­surer Amy Goode said.

Arkansas Fu­neral Care also has been sued by 11 fam­i­lies, ac­cord­ing to court records.

Sheila McHughes filed the most re­cent law­suit without the as­sis­tance of an at­tor­ney to pre­vent the statute of lim­i­ta­tions from ex­pir­ing.

Her hus­band of nine years, Mal­colm McHughes died at 67 af­ter a bout with can­cer in June 2014. She called him “Mac,” her rock.

They de­cided the fu­neral would be sim­ple, noth­ing too ex­pen­sive. Arkansas Fu­neral Care fit the bill; it was nearly half the cost of other fu­neral homes in the area.

Sheila McHughes in­formed the fu­neral di­rec­tor that the fam­ily needed to wait five days be­fore the me­mo­rial ser­vice to give her daugh­ter time to travel from Cal­i­for­nia. She said the fu­neral di­rec­tor as­sured her that her hus­band would look good.

McHughes re­called her shock on the day of the fu­neral when the cas­ket was opened for a fam­ily view­ing at an As­sem­bly of God church in Fern­dale, the same chapel where the cou­ple was mar­ried.

“This isn’t my Mac; this isn’t my hus­band,” McHughes re­called thinking.

She said his face was green, his nose de­formed and his lips were glued crookedly.

McHughes said she still sees that face in some of her dreams as vivid as it was that day in­side the cas­ket.

On the fu­neral home’s web­site, which now has been taken down, Leroy Wood touted its “very hon­or­able com­plete fu­neral plan with af­ford­able prices,” He said it was the rec­om­men­da­tion of many min­is­ters, priests, so­cial work­ers and health care providers.

“Why would you pay more?” he asked on the site.

The Pu­laski County coro­ner and the state Crime Lab­o­ra­tory even­tu­ally re­moved 31 bod­ies and 22 sets of cre­mated re­mains from the fu­neral home.

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